Sep 19, 2019 in Literature

Male Traits in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

The portrayal of gender roles takes the center stage of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. The play gives a brilliant depiction of how gender considered as a form of identity that is socially constructed determines people’s mode of behavior, appearance and roles within the society. In the play, characters impersonate different genders by use of specific voice, costumes and mannerism to portray what is expected of a male gender. From this point, it is clear that being a man means that one has to speak in a particular way as shown in the struggle to adjust characters’ voices to suit their roles in the play. At the same time, gender differences are observed by looking at people’s dress codes. It is for this reason the Shakespeare shows concern about the right choice of costumes for his characters to suit the gender that they assume in the play (Shakespeare). Being a man in the old days and the present time called for a specific mode of mannerism. It means that a man has to conduct himself in a way that is clearly distinct from a woman. All these conventions are prescribed by the society and a failure to adhere to them is a show of a deviation from the norm. Twelfth Night shows the complexity in the relationship between performance and gender as actors are made to disguise themselves in unfamiliar ways so as to communicate a particular gender.


In his book, Garber (36) adds to this discussion which contributing on the dualism in the gender crossed with anxieties related to status. For instance, Viola is claiming the “poor monster’s role”. Stubbes Philip adds a claim that women who are cross-dressed are neither full women nor full men, half of either gender, and, therefore, represent monsters of both male and female kinds. The ‘violation of the dress code’ impacts negatively on Malvolio who has had to suffer the brunt of social ostracism and exposure to the public. The downfall he suffered was orchestrated by Maria through her changing of the dress code. It is not different from what happens today, when women want to enjoy the freedom of dressing the way they like, with most of them dressing in a way that enables them to attract men. Though, as in the Shakespearean Elizabethan context, men are still expected to approach ladies, their choices of the persons to approach are greatly affected by such factor as dress code (Garber 36).

The first point of distinction between male and female gender as evidenced in the play is in the physical appearance. There are specific physical appearances that connote the male gender and the opposite is associated with the female gender (Shakespeare). All the distinctive physical appearances are socially assigned to mark a clear distinction between those of different genders. The play Twelfth Night involves the utilization of costume as an indicator of gender. In the course of doing that Shakespeare takes advantage of socially acceptable standards that are associated with both genders appearances. It is for this reason that Shakespeare successfully manages to have a boy actor playing Viola’s role. The boy actor fits in the role of a female character through an adoption of a dress code that is meant for women. The young boy is chosen due to the fact that he lacks the masculinity that is associated with the male gender. As was the case then, men are still associated with great masculinity as opposed to women. In fact, those who are more masculine seem more attractive to the ladies and the opposite is true. It is for this reason that a perfect representation of Viola could only be found in a young boy who lacks the physic of masculinity that is associated with being male.

The society assigns the role of a wooer to a man hence making men be regarded as the initiators of love. Women are meant to be approached by men for relationship matters and when the roles are interchanged, the situation is regarded as a deviation from the norm. It is for this reason that Shakespeare's Twelfth Night gives a portrayal of love and courtship by twisting gender roles. It forces Shakespeare to have lady characters disguising themselves as men for them to take up the roles of initiating love as the wooer. Without shifting the identity of the characters, it would be very hard for the characters to indulge in love and courtship as there would be no one to approach the other. It is evident in Act 3, scene 1, where Olivia causes a lot of confusion to the audience by taking up the wooing role that is traditionally assigned to the male (Shakespeare). She takes up the role to enable her approach and win Viola, a character that is also played by a male character that is disguised as a young lady, or Cesario.

Olivia gives a description of Cesario’s beauty on their first encounter and later in the play basing his perception of the beauty on feminine qualities without taking time to question Cesario’s gender (Shakespeare). It means that there are specific female attributes that set them apart from males and that can lead to a feeling of affection for one without taking much time to investigate the gender of the admired character. In this case, Olivia plays the role of a man by taking the initiative of attempting to initiate a love relationship with Cesario. Olivia makes a declaration that her passion for Cesario can hardly be hidden by wit and declares her love for Cesario that would overcome the forces of logic as the same sex couple would be.

The play also depicts the deviance that characterizes the current society where there is a mix up in gender roles. Currently, people advocate to be allowed the freedom to decide on the gender that they wish to associate with and to have their gender identities regarded as their personal life in which no one should intrude. Shakespeare’s time also had some level of acceptability of same sex romance. The situation that is presented in the play where two women woe each other with an aim of initiating a relationship is an indication of the shift in gender roles that is also observed in the current society. In the Elizabethan context that the play represents, a situation is presented where two male characters woe each other while disguised as women. It is a show of the prevalence of lesbianism that threatens to shift the role of men in the society. Under normal circumstances, the society expects that love affairs should be initiated between a male and a female with the male playing the initiation role as the female taking up the submissive role. The Twelfth Night is a depiction of the alternating roles through its depiction of lesbianism. If lesbianism is left to thrive in the society as acted in the play, it means that some of the characteristics of the male gender will cease to be considered as a distinctive feature between male and female.

The society dictates that women are meant to act as objects of desire and they are not allowed to take up the role of a suitor that is regarded reserved for men. Being an object of desire is what makes women dress in a particular manner to attract the attention of men so as to be wooed by them. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is a clear indication of the shift from the norm in role assignment as Olivia is given an opportunity to act as a suitor while a man is playing the role of an object of voyeurism. The role reversal is clear from the statement that Olivia makes when she says “I woo” when addressing Cesario. When Cesario refuses the proposal, there is an indication of a classic case where a beloved acts as an object of unachievable perfection for the lover to praise. To conform to the patriarchal formula, Olivia shows determination to woe Cesario to the point of convincing her to accept the proposal. She shows an admiration to Cesario’s resistance and expresses determination that her passion for Cesario can hardly be restrained even by reason (Shakespeare). Under normal circumstances, the society dictates that the resistance by a woman when wooed by a male admirer increases a man’s interest. Men are generally expected to be persistent in seeking their choices for love however hard it gets. They are to develop more interest in women who seem resistant to their proposals as such resistance adds extra value to the women. The role is perfectly played by Olivia who, despite her gender, replicates the correct discourse by demonstrating an unrelenting determination to woe Cesario.

Viola androgynously acts as a woman who plays a man similar to the positions of the young men that are assigned women roles in the general context of Elizabethan stage. This role shift poses a challenge to the restrictions that the society assigns to erotic attraction to heterosexual binarism as the dualism is rendered useless within one subject. Viola’s state calls for her masters’ love when she acts a man while when a woman, the sighs that Olivia has for her must stand out to be thriftless awing to the condemnation of same-sex love by the society. When she succeeds in performing roles of a man, as a woman, she brings the polarities on which heterosexuality is anchored to an end as she becomes an object of voyeurism. The ambiguity that is caused in depiction of gender roles in the play threatens the differences between hetero- and homo- erotic attraction.

In conclusion, there has not been much change with regards of male gender roles in the Shakespearean Elizabethan context and the contemporary society. Shakespeare has used a theatrical convention of cross-dressing that potentially symbolizes androgyny. In the process, the regulatory rules of erotic attraction are challenged by means of performance. This happens because the performance is done in such a way that suggests that gender is a part that can be played by any sex. In some way, the cross-dressing technique and having roles assigned to characters with little regards to their actual gender identities is a show that the society is shifting to an all inclusive scenario without definite boundaries set concerning the roles to be taken up by a given gender. It seems to reflect the situation in the secular world in which women have been empowered to undertake masculine responsibilities.


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